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Why Do Dogs Lick so Much?

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Layne is an animal lover and grew up in a household full of rescued critters. She is a registered veterinary technician.

Why Do Dogs Lick?

Why Do Dogs Lick?

Why Does My Dog Lick Me and Random Things?

If you are trying to figure out why your dog licks you and objects in general, there are many different answers to explore. Dogs love to lick—people, themselves, faces, paws, other dogs, hands, ears, air, carpet, metal, couches, furniture, the ground, and basically everything. Some dogs do it all the time, and others not so often. Some of the reasons for licking are fairly benign, while others might indicate behavioral problems, medical problems, nutritional deficiencies, anxiety, and more. Find out why your dog might be licking so many things by reviewing the ten reasons below.

10 Reasons Why Dogs Lick

  1. Love and Affection
  2. Anxiety
  3. Nutritional Deficiency
  4. Boredom
  5. Pain or Injury
  6. Skin Allergies
  7. For Taste
  8. Age
  9. Parasites
  10. Grooming
Dogs might lick out of affection.

Dogs might lick out of affection.

1. Love and Affection

Do dogs lick to show that they love you? The answer is yes. One of the most benign and adorable causes of licking in dogs is simply affection and love. Just as puppies often lick their mothers, dogs will lick their owners (as if to kiss) to show they love you, too. It is also not uncommon for canines in the wild to greet each other by licking the muzzle of their pack members. In addition, puppies will lick their mom’s muzzle upon greeting to stimulate her to regurgitate food for feeding. In summary, your dog sees you as family and likely kisses you out of love and closeness.

Keep in mind that canine mouths do contain bacteria, and just because you find the kisses cute doesn’t mean that house guests will find it adorable or even enjoy it. A lick here or there is something to allow but extensive licking is often not a good idea. In addition, people with compromised immune systems or open wounds should be mindful of hygiene and general care and are discouraged from letting dogs lick them. Go for petting or cuddles instead. You can tell your dog a gentle “no” and withdraw your arm and instead give them loving pats on the head or a nice scratch to show you love them, too.

Is a Dog’s Mouth Cleaner Than a Human's?

You really can’t compare canine and human mouths and saliva because they host different bacteria. Dogs have over 600 different bacteria types in their mouth (and humans have 615). So, while some may say a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s, this can be a bit misleading. Dogs eat meat and other foods (that potentially carry salmonella) or even poop (E. coli), so skip the kisses. Certain proteins in saliva (histatins) do ward off infection, but this is true of saliva from other mammals and humans. How about this: Think about the last time you brushed your dog’s teeth . . . that’s a good reminder why you should discourage them from licking your skin, face, or mouth.

A dog might lick because it is nervous.

A dog might lick because it is nervous.

2. Anxiety

Pica is a dog’s urge to consume things that are considered non-food substances. You might find your dog licking furniture (coffee table legs), concrete, sand, carpet, toys, metal, wood, and objects that aren’t likely to be naturally appealing. It is widely agreed upon that the obsessive licking of things is because of the psychopathology behind pica, which results from issues like anxiety.

Dogs that experience a high level of anxiety will lick their paws or limbs as a pacifying behavior. If anxiety truly is driving the behavior, the licking will appear to be more of a compulsion. You will probably notice your dog doing it when you’re in the other room and they are alone. You might even see it on a dog-cam if you have one setup in your home and generally leave the house for part of the day. The anxiety that your dog is experiencing can prompt the behavior due to the overwhelming nervousness and stress. It is your dog’s way of calming themselves.

To figure out why your dog has anxiety, you might want to ask several questions.

  • Have there been any recent changes in your dog’s environment?
  • Is there a new pet or family member?
  • Likewise, did a family member leave the house?
  • Are there people passing by a window that causes your dog to feel uneasy or guarded?
  • Do they have a secure region in the home that they can claim (e.g. a comfy dog bed)?
  • Are you scolding them or discipling them too much?
  • Are you not giving them enough affection?
  • Are you not giving them enough daily enrichment?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, work towards a solution. You can talk to your veterinarian about supplements or medications or even work with a behaviorist to combat your dog’s anxiety if it's not something that can be easily resolved on your own time.

Adaptil is a very good product for dogs that can be dispersed in the household as a diffuser or as a spray—it disperses synthetic pheromones into the environment that send a calming message to your pet. Of course, follow the product’s directions to see the greatest benefit (it needs to be used correctly and in the correct intervals).

Food allergies very often cause dogs to lick compulsively.

Food allergies very often cause dogs to lick compulsively.

3. Nutritional Deficiencies

A common cause for the licking of metal and other unsavory objects is malnutrition. If your dog is malnourished, you will want to talk to your veterinarian about the proper quantity of food and type of food you should be feeding your dog. You might have to switch to a higher-quality food brand or even incorporate supplements into your dog’s feeding regimen. Some of the key minerals that dogs require include sodium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. Many of these nutrients are essential. WIthout enough iron in their diet, for example, dogs can become anemic.

At the same time, malnutrition can be caused by health issues and underlying disease, in which case you might also notice hair loss, skin issues, and a susceptibility towards infection. Certain metabolic issues can prevent a dog from absorbing the proper nutrients that they require to thrive as well as gastric issues like IBS or food allergy—which is often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. You might also notice that your pet has low energy. Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect dietary issues.

A dog might lick out of boredom.

A dog might lick out of boredom.

4. Boredom

Much like anxiety, which is often rooted in initial boredom and then advances to generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, dogs will lick anything they can find including themselves (their paws, legs, fur) to pass the time and to soothe themselves. Licking cool metal, for example, provides an unusual sensation on the tongue which might propel your dog towards an obsessive-compulsive habit just to pass the time.

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If you keep your dog isolated without any play or stimulation, it’s not uncommon for this type of behavior to develop. This should be a strong indication that you as the owner/guardian/caretaker need to do more to enrich your dog’s life either by providing enough interactive toys, exercise, affection, or more.

Some dogs do very well with a companion, but only consider adopting a playpal for your dog if you can handle a second dog (emotionally and financially) and make sure you think about your dog’s traits and personality so that their companion is well-paired with their temperament and energy level. Having two dogs in the house that get along well makes for more excitement and companionship than a dog that is kept up alone.

5. Pain or Injury

A dog that is injured or in pain will also use licking as a pacifying, self-mending behavior to try to heal themselves or “access” the injury. Dogs will lick their paws frequently if there is a foxtail embedded in the toe webbing; beware that foxtails can tunnel into the skin. Although it might not be visible to the eye, you will be able to see swelling and tenderness around the foxtail entry point as well as a weeping “track” of clear fluid or pus due to infection.

Take your dog to the vet to have the foxtail removed or else it will keep tunneling until it stops or emerges from the other side of the paw. Foxtails can be extremely painful. Also check for paw pad injuries (rawness) and nail bed injuries. If you observe any, take your dog to the vet and do not try to treat it yourself. Afternall, it is normal for dogs to lick their wounds—mammalian saliva contains proteins that can help ward off infection, so your pet is only acting on instinct.

Arthritis or bone and joint injury (especially in older dogs) might cause a dog to lick obsessively. The target joint might hurt and the licking behavior might be an indication of deep pain or systemic pain. The behavior can be both a distraction or an attempt to mend the wound. If you have an older dog and they seem to be generally painful (do not enjoy being touched or being picked up or yelp when handled too abruptly), set up an appointment with your vet to consider some medications that they can be put on to ease the pain.

6. Allergies

Allergies both environmental or food-related, might also prompt a dog to lick at it’s paws or even chew. The problem with this situation is that hot spots (red, bloody patches with missing fur) will develop from the repeated behavior, and while a hot spot might look like a superficial injury, it is actually an indication of another underlying issue like skin irritation and allergy. Hot spots are very hard to heal as well. Your dog might be required to wear a cone or an E-collar or Elizabethan collar until the hot spot heals completely.

Talk to your vet about what is triggering your pet’s discomfort. Your vet might order an allergy test or put your dog on an elimination diet to figure out if the allergy is environmental or food-related. It might be necessary to stop feeding your dog food scraps and instead put them on higher-quality hypoallergenic foods. Skin allergies are often triggered by dietary issues, and present alongside itching, irritation, dry, flaky skin, and vomiting and diarrhea in more extreme cases. Your dog will feel the need to self-maim and chew and lick paws and any part of the body that is accessible due to their discomfort, so see your vet sooner than not or else the situation will not get better and your dog will suffer.

If you suspect that your dog’s allergy is environmental, stop using harsh chemicals or fragrances (including detergent) on them—this means you will want to use hypoallergenic soap for bathing and not spray harsh scents or use synthetic fabric softener in your laundry if your dog sleeps on bedding. You will also want to clean your home more (to vacuum up dust mites). Consider investing in a nice HEPA air filter to purify your household air.

Some dogs are allergic to pollen and might require an allergy medication during certain times of the year. If this is true, keep your windows close and protect them from exposure during windy days or days with high pollen count. You can also wipe your pet’s fur down with dog wipes after they go outside to remove any pollen they may be carrying on their fur.

Dogs lick to taste.

Dogs lick to taste.

7. For Taste

Your dog might be licking you because you are salty and taste good. This is especially true if you recently exercised or worked out and are sweaty. If the behavior strikes up right after a workout, then you have your answer. In addition, dogs have incredible noses, so your pet might be licking the wood floor in the home because you spill things as you cook and they are simply serving as your “clean-up crew.” If you live in a household full of kids where a lot of snacking and activity goes on, your dog might go around eating crumbs off the floor or furniture because there are good tastes there. Think about how often you clean and what types of things your dog is after.

Dogs are a lot more adventurous when it comes to tasting things. If your dog has a tendency to ingest foods and things that are not good for them, then closely watch them. If your dog is just tasting things in your home, there is no need to worry, especially if it’s a puppy. If it is a puppy, this is a normal part of development, just make sure they can’t taste or chew anything that will harm them. Also, consider using a puppy gate to keep them out of the kitchen if you are cooking with onion, garlic, or other harmful foods you don’t want them to snag.

Older dogs might start to exhibit senile behavior.

Older dogs might start to exhibit senile behavior.

8. Age

Older dogs are prone to cognitive decline in the same way that adult humans are. As your dog ages, they will start to demonstrate more unusual behaviors that can really be telling of their age. Your dog’s age and lifespan also depends on their size. Whereas breeds like Great Danes might live to be 8-10 years of age and mature to adulthood and senior adulthood within that span, Chihuahuas can live between 12-16 years. Knowing your dog’s life expectancy can help predict their developmental stage. If you have a mixed breed dog, you can generally guess their life expectancy or development phase based off of their dominant breed traits as well as their size (compare them to a dog of similar size); smaller breeds tend to live longer in general.

If your dog is showing cognitive decline, check in with your vet to see if you can better enhance your dog’s life in any way possible. Your dog might be licking from arthritis, senility, or even boredom.

9. Parasites

Parasites can definitely cause licking of the paws, skin, and fur as well as chewing. Fleas are considered parasites (external), and a bad flea infestation might cause your dog to be itchy and obsessed with chewing and grooming. A lot of owners say, “My dog doesn’t have fleas, I never see them,” but the truth is that you might not see them but they are there, always.

Unless you are very diligent about using flea meds on the calendar day for which they are due, nearly all pets (cats and dogs), even indoor, will host a flea or fleas. They pick them up from the grass outside, from dog parks, from other dogs, from other household critters, and from walks. The fleas might not bite you, because they are hosted on your dog, but they are still there, just not in great numbers.

Other types of parasites that cause itching include sarcoptic mange (scabies) which is caused by the Sarcoptes scabiei mite, ticks, ear mites, roundworm, tapeworm, and hookworm. Take your dog to your veterinarian for diagnosis and deworming if you suspect that they may have acquired a parasite other than a flea which can be easily treated with standard flea medications.

10. Self-Grooming

If you do not regularly help your dog out with grooming (i.e. regular brushing or bathing), your dog might be self-grooming. Dogs will need to pull dirt clots and debris out of their paws to be comfortable, so your dog might be performing these usual duties. Dogs also might chew their nails down out of instinct or habit. If your dog is trying to groom and is having difficult doing so (they are older or have a long, fuffy, or matted coat), consider helping them out or taking them to a professional groomer.

Mats can form easily in long-haired dogs in hidden places and can be very uncomfortable if not painful over time. While grooming is a fairly benign reason for obsessive lickining, it might be an indication that your dog needs a little help with self-care and you as an owner are responsible for this.

Now that we have reviewed ten common reasons for obsessive licking, you probably have a better idea of what is causing your dog to do so. While many dogs will lick things out of curiosity, triggers like anxiety, disease, or boredom need to be addressed ASAP. Start by making a phone call to your veterinarian.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Laynie H

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